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Decoding the Bible

What is conscience?

By Thomas Reynolds

Conscience is often understood as an inner voice that guides us on matters of morality. Like another person inside us, it checks our actions and intentions and declares us innocent or guilty of wrongdoing. Christians often interpret the voice of conscience as the voice of God, telling people right from wrong.

I am uncomfortable using the word in this way. Conscience as voice of God conveys a false sense of moral clarity and superiority or, in some cases, an overactive sense of guilt. Yet conscience can be a helpful way to think about responsibility. I offer five possibilities.

First, conscience is rooted in God without requiring a belief in God. In Romans 2:14-15, the Apostle Paul describes conscience as a common “law” written upon each heart. It is a moral knowledge ingrained in all human beings, the means by which we become accountable. Religious and non-religious people alike share it, though in different ways. So while Christians acknowledge that conscience is part of our nature created by God, conscience doesn’t necessarily require outright faith in God.

My atheist neighbours bring the point home. They don’t believe in God, but their consciences compel them to a level of social and environmental action that far exceeds my own. This is humbling and challenges my conscience as a Christian, called to the very moral practices they (more faithfully) embody.

This example leads to a second point. Conscience is not merely the property of the individual, put there by God in some automatic and fixed sense. It is social — an outcome of our relationships with others. As God creates us for one another, being in right relation with others and creation is part of how we become fully human.

This means that conscience is neither ready-made nor ever complete in itself. It needs education and forming. My conscience is shaped continually in relationships with others and in ways that ever deepen — and even change — my sense of what is right and wrong. Not merely that I must become socialized in proper Christian fashion, formed by churchly or biblical norms. But more basically, that I learn the moral art of putting myself in the place of others and seeing from their point of view.

We’ve come to a third point. Conscience means knowing — literally con (with) scientia (knowledge) — not simply about others or about moral principles, but knowledge that shows empathy and understanding. The inner law Paul refers to is activated by becoming responsive to the dignity and vulnerability of those around us. It is telling that we often use the word “conscientious” to describe behaviour that shows awareness of how our actions and attitudes affect people.

A fourth consideration: conscience is limited and can be mistaken. I can be unaware of how my behaviour violates or harms another person. My conscience can mask self-serving agendas and overlook my own complicity in unjust practices. Paul recognizes this and encourages Christians to withhold judgment until God makes all things clear (I Corinthians 4:4-5). Conscience is not an excuse to presume our righteousness or others’ blameworthiness. There is no absolute voice of conscience available to one person or one group.

Finally, I suggest that conscience is most fully expressed in humility and compassion. Humility acknowledges vulnerability, fallibility and the constant need for dialogue with those who can correct our errors or misgivings. It is grounded in the capacity to say, “I’m sorry,” and to repent for wrongdoing. My partner and children have taught me this time and again. I may act out of presumed clarity of intent and may even experience a “clear conscience,” but their responses to me often indicate otherwise. Being in right relation to others requires being vulnerable and open to the ways they inform my conscience by challenging me.

Compassion is the capacity to identify with others and form connections of caring solidarity. It is the garden in which conscience blooms, fertilized in relationships of mutual respect and within communities that nurture regard for others. Compassion recog-nizes the vulnerable dignity of others, and on this basis, moves us to be present with and for others. As Paul indicates in I Corinthians 8:1-13, conscience is not merely about knowing rules. It is about knowing others and having their good in mind.

Conscience is a gentle guide that fosters responsibility. It is rooted in God’s creative love and manifests itself as regard for others — among believers and non-believers alike. Together, we seek to follow the dictates of conscience, living rightly with and for others. 
Thomas E. Reynolds is an associate professor of theology at Emmanuel College in Toronto.
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